When Marine George Hill finished his military service in 1985, he needed help, and he couldn't find any. For 12 years, he was homeless, living around MacArthur Park in downtown Los Angeles. Now he is the leader of the famed New Directions Veterans Choir, which uses music to spread the word that there is hope, and help, for troubled veterans. The choir will perform Sunday at the Rabobank Theater as part of their first-ever concert tour.
"At that particular time, there were a lot of veterans dying -- there weren't many programs around," said Hill, who served in the Marines from 1977 to 1985, with duty at El Toro Naval Air Station, Camp Pendleton and in South Korea at the DMZ.
Hill said his time in the Marines represented the best part of his life; nevertheless, his transition to civilian life was difficult enough to drive him to substance abuse and eventually homelessness. In August of 1998, Hill entered the New Directions program at the Veterans Administration hospital in West Los Angeles. Hill said the program director, who had learned Hill could sing, suggested he start a choir. Hill did.
"We just started it for one particular day," Hill said.
That "particular day" was a visit by some state legislators, one of whom was so impressed with the choir he asked them to sing at an upcoming wedding, which led to another singing engagement. Pretty soon, the choir was singing regularly.
"Now it's just turned out to be a good thing for everyone," Hill said. "It's been a great boon for us."
The New Directions Veterans Choir is an a capella ensemble that sings doo-wop, soul, gospel and other styles of pop music. All the singers are recipients of care from the New Directions program -- meaning they were all near or approaching homelessness at some point following their military service. The group came to national attention following an appearance on "America's Got Talent" and has performed on stage as well as television, for the 2000 Democratic National Convention and for members of Congress. But the fame and attention are not what this group is about.
"We've had the most outstanding reception," Hill said. "Everywhere we go, people are just really touched."
"Music is a powerful healing force," Hill said. "(Singing) turned into something we never expected -- it showed us recovery is possible, and it can be fun, too."
But beyond their personal recovery, the singers are trying to encourage other veterans to seek help if they need it. Hill said that's a tough message to get across, because many veterans are ashamed to admit they need a hand.
"You most definitely suffer," he said. "You are a hard-charging Marine, and you want to be a hard-charging Marine in every sense of the word."
"We get to tell veterans that it's OK for a warrior to get help."
According to VA spokeswoman Cindy Young, the New Directions program provides rehabilitation, residential treatment, remedial education, job training, legal services and housing placement assistance for veterans, with additional services to veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"This agency provides services for homeless veterans, and rapid re-housing/homelessness prevention for veteran families," Young wrote in an email. "And we are opening our first permanent supportive housing facilities -- 147 units -- in the middle of this year."
"I don't want to see another veteran go through what I went through," Hill said.